Marin Alsop, fresh from conducting the splashy Last Night of the Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall, returned home this week to open the first subscription program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's centennial season. All in all, the results Thursday night at Strathmore proved rewarding.
To be sure, the BSO sounded at times like it was still working on getting back into the groove after the summer recess, as was the case at last week's gala concert (the brass and woodwinds, in particular, proved a little shy of pristine). Several new faces onstage also signaled that we may be in for a period of adjustment.
That said, the ensemble did some terrific work along the way, reaching its highest peak, if you will, in the concert's main item, the sprawling "Eine Alpensinfonie" ("An Alpine Symphony") by Strauss.
Before setting off on that musical hike, there was a colorful, witty arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by BSO assistant conductor Nicholas Hersh that slipped in references to Strauss, Ravel and more.
More color followed with a vibrant account of "Masquerade" by British composer Anna Clyne, who will have a residency with the BSO this season.
During her multiple visits, she will participate in various educational activities and also compose a work, commissioned by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter for the BSO and Alsop to honor Baltimore philanthropists Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker. The premiere will be in May.
The 35-year-old Clyne, who just finished a five-year stint as the Chicago Symphony's composer-in-residence, has a gift for generating vibrant orchestral textures. "Masquerade," premiered in 2013 by Alsop and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms, packs lots of intriguing sounds and ideas (including an old drinking song) into a few swirling, tangy minutes.
Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini provided a showcase for Olga Kern's pianistic sureness (and fashion flair -- she appeared to have been poured into a bright, Spanish-flavored gown).
Kern produced plenty of sparks as she dug into the brilliant score. Her tone tended toward the icy, but melted nicely for a very elegant, spacious delivery of the 18th Variation, beautifully supported by Alsop and the orchestra's strings.
The pianist offered some more Rachmaninoff as an encore -- Moments musicaux, Op. 16, No. 4 in E minor. The playing was fleet, firm and one-dimensional.
In 2007, Alsop led a super-sized account of "An Alpine Symphony" with the BSO and members of the Peabody Symphony. This time, just her own orchestra, plus enough extra players to handle the expansive instrumentation.
This nearly hour-long, uninterrupted work from 1915 does not get universal respect. Some listeners think of its an overblown travelogue -- "A Day in the Life of an Alp," as one wag put it. We Strauss-aholics beg to differ.
In addition to the richness of the aural palette, with a distinctive timbre around every corner, there is plenty of melodic substance and imaginative thematic development. Whatever else it may be (Strauss had Nietzsche's "The Antichrist" in mind when he started composing), the piece stands on its own as an organic musical structure.
It would be worth hearing every now and then if only for the passage at the heart of the piece, "On the Summit," with its stately, falling-rising-falling theme (borrowed, it seems, from the second movement of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1). This is glorious, old-fashioned romantic stuff, and Alsop ensured that it registered deeply, drawing a luxurious response from the BSO.
If the conductor's tempos occasionally made this seem more like an Alpine drive-by, the tautness gave the performance an effective tension. And, even allowing for the rough edges along the way, the orchestra's playing was alive with character and commitment, yielding quite an absorbing experience.