BSO premieres vibrant work about Harriet Tubman

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In addition to such things as new recording contracts and a nationally recognized education program, Marin Alsop's influence as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can be seen in the programming each season.

She typically weaves connective threads through concert repertoire. For 2011-2012, that thread involves commemorating extraordinary women, including Joan of Arc in November. This weekend, Harriet Tubman is the focus, via the premiere of a work by James Lee III, a Morgan State University professor whose finely crafted music has been gaining increased exposure nationally.


The 12-minute "Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan" was greeted warmly by the audience Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the program will be repeated Sunday afternoon.

"Chuphshah" (Hebrew for "freedom") provides a whirlwind portrait of Tubman's life and struggles, with quotations from vintage tunes that provide guideposts for listeners. Those quotations can't help but bring to mind Charles Ives, this country's first great composer; Ives packed his music with melodic reminiscences of Americana.


Lee references spirituals and, to conjure images of the Civil War, snippets of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Dixie." If the device tends to make the music sound like a soundtrack in search of a documentary, the piece nonetheless succeeds on it own. The orchestration is consistently vivid; harmonies are often richly layered; spicy dissonances here and there deliver a bracing kick.

On Friday, Alsop led the BSO in a strongly etched account of the work. Jane Marvine played the English horn solo — Lee uses that soulful instrument to represent Tubman — with impressive warmth.

The rest of the concert was devoted to two items from the 1890s, both among the best-loved in all of classical music.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto suggests an epic biography of some heroic, yet all-too-human, figure. It is unconcerned with mere technical display, but rather requires the soloist to burrow into an alternately eventful and reflective world beneath the surface of the notes.

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Alisa Weilerstein, already a significant artist before being awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship last week (the so-called "genius grant"), sounded a bit unsettled at the opening of the concerto. But she soon settled into the music and gave a distinctively lyrical performance. The Adagio and the haunting moments just before the end of the concerto inspired particularly subtle and poignant playing.

Alsop offered the cellist supple support and drew considerable expressive power from the orchestra.

Except for some untidiness in the last movement, the BSO also did impressive work at the end of the program in Tchaikovsky's searing Symphony No. 6, the "Pathetique." The conducting, though, proved less persuasive.

The middle of the symphony fared best. The second movement, the almost-waltz in 5/4 time, could have been played with finer gradations of dynamics, but Alsop ensured that the music's tension came through powerfully. Even more impressive was how she drove the third movement's defiant march along with a bold sweep and kept the repetitive patterns from turning routine.


But in the outer movements and their tortured emotions, the conductor favored momentum over poetry and breadth. The familiar phrases still communicated, but didn't touch; the death-suggestive gong in the finale hardly had time to register. It was all a little too dry-eyed for me.

The BSO performs at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000 or go to