Alsop, BSO make case for Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1

An extra spark in the playing at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first program of the 2014-2015 subscription series a week ago made me think this would turn out to be an exceptional season. Something about the second program this weekend made me even more convinced.

I know you are tired of hearing me say this, but I just want to make sure it's sinking in — the BSO is operating at a technical peak these days and demonstrating a tighter rapport than ever with music director Marin Alsop. She also seems to have reached a new high in terms of expressive intensity.


All of this was readily apparent on Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, nowhere more compellingly than at the end of concert, when Alsop turned to an infrequently encountered work by Rachmaninoff. His Symphony No. 1 is on the fringes of the repertoire, but the BSO's performance made a persuasive case for giving it more attention.

The score is like a prequel to Rachmaninoff's sweeping, glorious Symphony No. 2, with many a similar component of structure and orchestration. Although a review of the 1897 premiere of Symphony No. 1 famously suggested that it would delight "the inmates of hell" (that sent the composer into a major funk), the score is anything but a punishment.


Even if the composer's melodic gift was not quite far enough along to produce the sort of juicy ear worms that would elevate his next symphony, there is great richness of atmosphere here, a palpable sense of a drama restlessly churning its way to some awesome end.

Rachmaninoff spins each of the four movements largely from two short thematic ideas, one of them from the ancient Latin chant "Dies Irae" that would become his lifelong musical calling card. That he manages to make a zillion appearances and transformations of those motives sound fresh is an achievement in itself.

Alsop approached the symphony with obvious relish and generated what I'd rank among her most galvanizing interpretations since she took the helm seven years ago. In addition to her usual pinpoint attentiveness to details of articulation, she shaped phrases with equal sensitivity to their sonic and emotional possibilities.

Every section of the orchestra made dynamic contributions. When the violas, for example, got a moment to shine on their own in the finale, their crisp attacks had terrific fire. The third movement solos by concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski glowed. But this was very much an ensemble effort through and through.

The first half of the concert offered rewards, too. Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto from the mid-1940s used to be dismissed as lightweight, too Hollywood (the composer recycled themes from several of his film scores). Lately, it seems to have become more widely respected, just as it should be.

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The concerto's refined lyricism could not ask for a more eloquent advocate than James Ehnes. The violinist's seamless technique, sweetness of tone and poetic instincts had the music soaring and sighing to compelling effect. He enjoyed supple backing from Alsop and the BSO (some muddling in the final measures aside).

The Hollywood theme continued after the concerto, as Ehnes gave an eloquent, subtle account of John Williams' Theme from "Schindler's List," again beautifully partnered by conductor and ensemble.

The program opened with "blue cathedral" by the ever-inventive, ever-communicative American composer Jennifer Higdon.


This work, first performed in 2000, emerged out of personal heartache, the death of Higdon's younger brother two years earlier. He had played the clarinet, Higdon the flute. Those two instruments are used to poignant effect in the piece.

The music seems to emit and reflect light as it moves from stillness to exuberance and back again, tapering off ethereally. If you didn't know the personal story behind it, the music could still touch your heart; when you do know that story, it can touch your soul.

Alsop coaxed a tender, absorbing performance from the BSO. Higdon was on hand to receive a warm ovation afterward from musicians and audience alike.

The program will be repeated tonight at Strathmore, tomorrow at Meyerhoff.