During the first work on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s final subscription program of the season, male voices boom through loudspeakers, uttering familiar phrase-bites: “The people of this nation are sick and tired . . .”; “Never again shall we submit to . . .”; “I give you the next president. . .”
About an hour later in this same concert, the unmistakable sounds of Russian music fill the hall.
But there’s no collusion, folks, no collusion. Just a meaty combination of repertoire that celebrates three musical giants. All of it was effectively articulated by the BSO Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, led with conviction and sensitivity by music director Marin Alsop.
The many inter-connections going on in this one program are remarkable.
The opening piece, “Slava! A Political Overture,” which includes those pre-recorded snippets of cliched speechifying, was penned by Leonard Bernstein as a salute to cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, universally known by the diminutive “Slava.”
It was written for Rostropovich’s inaugural concert as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1977, an event that also saw the premiere of Bernstein’s absorbing, infrequently performed “Songfest.”
(The National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center in College Park will present “Songfest” on June 16 conducted by James Judd, who, come to think of it, is long overdue for a return BSO engagement.)
In Russian, “slava” means glory, a word used unforgettably in Mussorgsky’s opera about “Boris Godunov,” when crowds dutifully acclaim their czar (a musical reference to “Boris” is embedded in the Bernstein overture).
It’s also possible to hear in the final, blazing moments of a Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 — the concluding work on this BSO program — something of a forced exultation.
In between the Bernstein overture and the Shostakovich Fifth on the program is Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled “The Age of Anxiety,” after the epic 1947 W. H. Auden poem about the post-war world.
There are moments in the Bernstein symphony that sound a lot like Shostakovich, especially during the fraught “Dirge” passage and a finale that, like in the Russian composer’s Fifth, struggles to be affirmative and uplifting, but doesn’t quite convince.
Like I said — interconnections. There are personal ones, too: Alsop was a friend of Bernstein, who was a friend of Rostropovich, who was a friend of Shostakovich.
However related to incidents and feelings in Auden’s ambitious poem about four unsettled people in search of themselves, Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” stands fully apart as its own drama.
The composer placed a piano front and center of the piece, almost creating a concerto rather than a symphony. The piano becomes a very useful focal point for this journey, as well as a kind of stand-in for Bernstein, who was always seeking for truths and entryways into the mysteries of faith.
No firm solution or great cosmic answer comes out of this music. Even as it surges and seems to affirm something in the closing moments, the underlying uncertainty remains, the mood that Auden described of people who “would rather be ruined than changed ... would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”
Alsop’s deftly sculpted interpretation underlined just how well this brilliant symphony speaks to our own anxious time. The orchestra responded with taut, potent playing.
Jon Kimura Parker tackled the daunting piano part with consummate technical skill. If he missed a little of the brashness and spontaneity of the “Masque” movement, he played the rest with a wealth of tone color and richly expressive phrasing.
The 1937 Shostakovich symphony, a product of another age of anxiety, was memorably delivered a few years ago by Alsop and the BSO. Thursday’s performance sounded a little less intense, especially at the start, but still impressed overall.
The strings excelled, especially in the quiet chords of the Largo movement. Woodwinds and brass offered great color and control; the percussion punctuated the big moments with great finesse.
And as for Bernstein’s raucous “political” piece at the beginning of the evening, everybody seemed to have fun with it. The orchestra handled the jazzy, even boozy riffs with flair and summoned sufficient gusto when required to shout the word “Slava” at the close.
This concert also provides an opportunity for the musicians to show off the final version of the new formal wear developed over several years at Parsons New School for Design. From out in the hall, it wasn’t easy to pick out all the subtle details in the garments, which promise greater ease of movement. Too soon to tell if they will become standard at the BSO, or catch on elsewhere.
Before the the concert’s second half, two excellent players were warmly saluted by colleagues and the audience — associate principal cellist Chang Woo Lee and violist Sharon Pineo Myer, each retiring after 40 years with the BSO.