Alsop, BSO revisit Mahler's First; Rachmaninoff 'Rhapsody' also on program

Marin Alsop began her tenure as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director in 2007 with one of Gustav Mahler's symphonies and has kept his richly challenging, richly rewarding works in the prominently in the picture since.

Over the years, the conductor's approach to Mahler has been, above all, precise and propulsive. So it was again Thursday night when Alsop and the BSO revisited Mahler's Symphony No. 1, which they first performed together (and recorded) in 2008.


Some of us Mahler nuts crave interpretations that are exceedingly liberal with tempos and emotions, that bend a phrase here or add a pregnant pause there -- the sort of super-individualistic versions Alsop's mentor Leonard Bernstein routinely offered.

Like many a conductor, Alsop treats a Mahler score in a more literal, straightforward manner, not that there's anything wrong with that. Satisfying results can still be produced, as was the case, mostly, on Thursday.


The last half of the symphony emerged in particularly effective fashion. Alsop drew out the third movement's haunting mix of the funereal and the folk-like with telling subtlety, then charged into the finale's opening torrent with gripping force. She kept the tension going right to the blazing end, so that even the moments of introspection had a tingly edge.

By comparison, Alsop's shaping of the first two movements could have used more character and rhythmic nuance. This was especially so of the scherzo, which passed by too matter-of-factly to unlock the bittersweet nostalgia at its core.

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That said, the performance struck me as stronger, overall, than the 2008 account, in terms of both conducting and playing.

Today's BSO is a much tighter and more focused ensemble. Even allowing for a few untidy notes, mainly at the start of the symphony, the musicians demonstrated commendable cohesion and fire.

The strings, in particular, maintained exceptional tonal sheen while articulating even the busiest phrases with great clarity. The woodwinds summoned lots of color, the brass and percussion abundant power. Principal bassist Robert Barney delivered the third movement solo beautifully (in 2008, Alsop had the entire bass section play this passage, an unusual practice I was glad she did not repeat).

The program opened with Rachmaninoff's brilliant "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini," which, as all good Baltimore Rachmaninoff fans know, had its world premiere at the Lyric Opera House 80 years ago with the composer at the keyboard, backed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Making his BSO debut on Thursday was Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition held at the University of Maryland. His performance revealed considerable promise. He produced lots of tonal sparkle tearing through the most kinetic sections of the score, and summoned sufficient warmth for the lyrical ones.

Orchestra and soloist didn't reach the witty end of the piece in perfect sync, but otherwise shared the same taut wavelength. Alsop drew impressively vibrant playing from the ensemble throughout.


The concert repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall. The Mahler symphony will be discussed and performed there at an Off the Cuff presentation at 7 p.m. today.