Alsop leads BSO in colorful program of Bach, Stravinsky, Holst

Violinist Leila Josefowicz
(Deborah O'Grady)

For a satisfying feast of prismatic colo

rs and intricate designs, you can stop by one of our local museums any time. But this weekend, check out the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's program instead.

So, OK, this is about aural hues and structures, rather than visual, but the effect is just as arresting. And, for those who still crave something to see, this concert offers that, too, in the form of projected images from the Hubble Telescope. They accompany a perennially popular sonic blockbuster from the orchestral repertoire, Gustav Holst's "The Planets."

But the fun starts long before that portion of the program. Marin Alsop has chosen some cool, less frequently programmed items to balance the astrological journey.

Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski's arrangements of Bach pieces used to be considered quite acceptable, even if his full-blown, hyper-romantic orchestrations were about as stylistically authentic as 1970s mag wheels on a '55 Chevy.

Then, a few decades ago, came the musical authenticity folks, who ushered in an era of pure Bach, and the Stokowski gems suddenly seemed gaudy. Thankfully, such attitudes have largely faded, and no one need feel the slightest guilt about relishing these luscious arrangements.

The BSO sounded positively radiant when it dug into the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, where this program will be repeated Sunday  (on Saturday night, only "The Planets" will be performed as part of the "Off the Cuff" series).

Alsop let the music breathe, allowing the ever- shifting palette of instrumental nuances to register richly, but also ensuring that the intricate interplay of melodic lines unfolded with terrific tension.

The strings, especially the violas, summoned an extra degree of darkly beautiful tone. Vibrant efforts from the woodwinds and brass added carefully nuanced shades to the uplifting performance.

Echoes of Bach appear in Igor Stravinsky's 1931 Violin Concerto, an ingenious, brightly colored piece that deserves much more attention. It is full of neo-baroque touches, filtered through spicy harmonies. The acerbic chord that, in one way or another, ignites each movement leaves an indelible mark.

Leila Josefowicz, one of today's most adventurous violinists, gave a sterling account of the score, impeccably articulated and phrased with a keen appreciation for subtle inflections. Her playing in "Aria II," the most Bach-like movement, proved exquisite.

Throughout, Alsop kept the orchestral side of things flowing smoothly; the BSO produced plenty of sparks in the outer movements to match the soloist's.

Before the orchestra launched into "The Planets," Mario Livio, the senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, gave the audience a brief, witty intro to our celestial neighbors.

Holst was more interested in astrological and mythological aspects of those distant objects than their physical attributes, but it was still fun to have a sampling of Hubble close-ups to go with the music (Lee Mills prepared the well-timed projections). And that music, guided with a sure hand by Alsop, emerged with admirable polish and expressive fire.

Highlights included the massive crescendos in "Mars"; the darting sparks in "Mercury"; the proud, Elgar-like anthem that brings gravitas to "Jupiter"; and the moody mystery of "Neptune," with the women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society lending their voices offstage to create a truly ethereal effect.