After more than three months of silence at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra took to the stage again Friday night with a mostly joyous program and a sound that grew in confidence and depth as the night went on.
The symphony’s management and musicians announced Monday that they had agreed to a one-year contract, allowing the orchestra to open its 104th season just days later.
The decision put an end to a work stoppage that began in June, when the BSO board voted to lock out its musicians. While the lockout officially ended the week of Sept. 14 (the original date of the orchestra’s season-opening concert), musicians refused to return to work without a contract.
Community support for the orchestra’s return was visible Friday: There were few empty seats in the Meyerhoff, and ticket lines wound around the hall up to the last minutes before downbeat. The audience jumped to their feet, applauding and cheering, when the orchestra walked onto the stage, and remained standing as Maestra Marin Alsop led the BSO in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Alsop’s commentary on the labor dispute was brief. She thanked the audience, remarking, “We know that Baltimore deserves this great orchestra.”
Despite the audience’s joy, the season’s opening work was appropriately somber. Last week, Baltimore-born-and-based composer Christopher Rouse died of cancer at the age of 70; in his honor, the orchestra played “Processional: Death of Poe,” which the BSO commissioned and premiered in 2016 as part of its centennial.
A winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music and three Grammys, Rouse served as the BSO’s composer-in-residence in 1986 and as its new music advisor from 1989 to 2000. He composed “Processional” as a funeral march for Edgar Allan Poe, but last night the work’s dark, swirling atmosphere commemorated Rouse himself, as well as the music and relationships his death cut short. Alsop, as a longtime champion of Rouse’s work, represented one of those relationships. (Earlier in the day, New Music Box published Alsop’s memorial of Rouse.)
For this listener, “Processional” was doubly meaningful. While the BSO’s return is certainly something to celebrate, it would seem dismissive to jump into the season without a musical acknowledgement of the lingering strife from the summer’s lockout.
The overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La forza del destino” launched what would be a good night for the BSO brass. Both “forza” and the program’s later Symphony No. 4 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky begin with tolling brass octaves — with Tchaikovsky, a central, recurring theme — and throughout the night, the brass was glowing, their sound full and, more often than not, blending sumptuously with the rest of the orchestra.
Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Voodoo Violin Concerto” was a treat — and just what the doctor ordered. Roumain, as both composer and soloist, at times seemed to be cajoling the orchestra as much as the audience, as he riffed, shredded and crooned (literally — the piece contains a vocal section) his way through this music, which alternated between frantic, jazzy motifs and more soaring, pastoral sections.
Roumain (who also goes by his initials, DBR) regularly draws from a variety of genres in his music, and “Concerto” did not disappoint. There was heavy reverb on his electric violin, there was some hard rock distortion and funk-inspired strumming, and principal percussionist Chris Williams even took up a driving rhythm on the drum set.
By the piece’s end Roumain had thoroughly dosed the hall with what it had too long lacked: lightness, exuberance and the pure fun of making music.
It took the orchestra some time to find its footing in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony: There were some sour notes in the first movement and the tempi felt, at times, uncertain. This began to change at the first movement’s “ben sostenuto,” when the violins took up a lilting melody over the timpani. Alsop coaxed a hushed and shimmering urgency from this music, and its energy seemed to focus the entire orchestra.
The symphony’s scherzo and finale were breathless and assured; the shaping of the march-like brass music in the scherzo was among the most elegant I’ve heard. Throughout, the symphony offered wind players moments to shine; of particular note were guest principal oboist Max Blair and piccoloist Amal Gochenour.
In all, the orchestra’s return to the stage was a success, despite the significant lack of regular BSO musicians. Over the summer, many secured paid work elsewhere, and remained absent from the opening concert to fulfill previous obligations. Staff confirmed that this weekend’s performances feature “an unusually high number of substitute musicians.”
If the trajectory of Friday’s concert is any indication, repeat performances promise further tightening of the orchestra’s sound. Led by Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform the same program at the Strathmore on Saturday and at the Meyerhoff on Sunday.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.