Jered McLenigan as Shostakovich in "Notes for Stalin"
Jered McLenigan as Shostakovich in "Notes for Stalin" (Tracey Brown /)

One of the most interesting projects undertaken by the Baltimore Symphony since Marin Alsop took the helm mixes theater and music into something called a Symphonic Play.

This now-copyrighted and well-promoted concept by Didi Balle offers an unusual way to dig into the lives and works of composers -- "CSI"-style examinations of Mozart's death or Beethoven's deafness; probing the relationship between Wagner and his obsessive patron, King Ludwig; recreating Mahler's therapeutic sessions with Freud.

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Everyone in the orchestra business is concerned not only about reaching new audiences, but also re-engaging the ones they already have. Balle's plays address both goals quite effectively.

Of those I've seen, too much talk has sometimes been an issue (the Beethoven and Wagner plays), but the playwright's ability to conjure genuine characters, never caricatures, and her deft application of humor have consistently impressed. And although I have not always found the interweaving of musical excerpts fully effective, the end result has satisfied.

"Notes for Stalin," which the BSO presented over the weekend, is cohesive and rewarding. It looks at the troubling history behind Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, that hideous climate in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, when Stalin's whims and tastes (or lack thereof) dictated cultural expression.

Balle largely avoids over-dramatizing the events or sentimentalizing Shostakovich. Whatever conflating or fudging of facts is involved, the play ultimately rings true.

As for the musical side, there should be some way to work "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" into the play, since that opera is so much a part of the story. I can understand how budget constraints would prevent the use of singers, but there are certainly symphonic fragments that would hit the spot. Otherwise, the excerpts are well-chosen.

There were colorful performances Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall from Jered McLenigan as Shostakovich, Tony Tsendeas as the composer's confidante Isaak Glikman, and Richard Poe in a variety of roles. Balle was the deft director. Alsop ensured smooth integration of music with the dialogue.

Balle departed from her usual custom in fashioning this play. Instead of keeping the theatrical activity going throughout, "Notes for Stalin" segues neatly into a complete performance of the Fifth Symphony.

I've already reviewed the BSO/Alsop account of that piece, played a few days earlier in a regular concert. I was just as riveted 48 hours later, thanks to the conductor's deep connection to the score and the orchestra's intense response (the bite of the brass and vibrancy in the strings were especially terrific).

This same play-with-complete-symphony approach will be taken in the next work by the BSO's playwright-in-residence. Balle's "Tchaikovsky: Mad But For Music," slated for a premiere in April, digs into that composer's Fifth. I'm looking forward to it.

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