Amid controversy, BSO, Alsop and Ohlsson deliver in forceful season-opener

Well, that was a relief.

After what surely ranks among the darkest, tensest weeks in Baltimore Symphony Orchestra history, the ensemble managed to deliver a forceful, engaging opener to the 2018-2019 subscription concert season.


On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the BSO gave its first performance since principal oboist Katherine Needleman made public her charge of discrimination filed with the EEOC against the orchestra and outlining complaints about concertmaster Jonathan Carney.

I couldn’t have been the only one anxious to find out how the audience would react at the first sight of the accused or the accuser. But I also couldn’t have been the only one hoping everyone could leave the dirty linen backstage and focus squarely on the music. That’s how it turned out.


When Carney came onstage for the customary solo bow just before the concert’s start, I thought I heard a couple of faint, unfriendly sounds in the house. May have been my active imagination. Regardless, what registered was applause.

At the start of the program’s second half, Carney was, uncharacteristically, already onstage, so there was no entrance and bow. And, at the end of the concert, music director Marin Alsop zipped through the process of calling on individual players — including Needleman — to stand for acknowledgment of their solos in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. A wise shift in tactics, I’d say, one I imagine will be the new norm for a while.

The Needleman-Carney matter was hardly the only tension in the air. Audience members were greeted in the lobby by BSO players handing out leaflets about a lack of progress on a new contract with management. The previous one expired Sept. 9.

(The audience also encountered new security at the door, which will now be in place for all concerts, as recommended by a security consultant. Such procedures have been in use at the Hippodrome Theatre and other places.)

With all that, we were lucky to get any kind of concert.

The program was bookended by works about heroes. Beethoven planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon until the Little Colonel turned into a dictator; the composer rechristened it “Eroica” (“Heroic”), and the music has since been heard as a general tribute to the noblest of human traits and ideals.

Someone of recent times who personified those traits and ideals, Martin Luther King Jr., is the subject of the piece that opened the program — Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World (Daybreak of Freedom).”

This sumptuously orchestrated score for narrator and orchestra strikes me as a bit effortful, striving too hard for effect or repeating some ideas too insistently. But its emotional harmonies and rhythmic sweep can be very effective, as was the case here under Alsop’s astute guidance. The BSO, especially the pivotal percussion section, produced mighty sonic waves.

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It was a nice idea to expand the narration duties. Mellow-voiced Barry F. Williams (director of Baltimore County’s Department of Recreation and Parks) was joined in reciting King’s stirring lines about racial justice by two poised students — Maria Williams and Jayden Moore, from the BSO’s acclaimed OrchKids educational program.

Alsop’s approach to the first movement of the Beethoven symphony felt more genteel than heroic, but the performance subsequently gained thrust and power. The second movement’s funeral march had weight, the scherzo terrific lift (the horns excelled). The orchestra sounded wonderfully free-spirited, yet tightly polished, in Alsop’s finely-paced handling of the finale.

At the center of the program was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which, for me, fit into the concert’s heroic context because the guest artist is one of my keyboard heroes — Garrick Ohlsson.

With his unfailing musicality, wealth of tone coloring and infallible technique, Ohlsson delivered a memorable account of the “Rhapsody.” The pianist brought startling thunder to the score’s drama, exquisite tenderness to its poetry. Alsop and the scintillant orchestra backed him all the way.

For an encore, Ohlsson definitely added to the evening’s theme with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s well-worn C-sharp minor Prelude that was, in its dynamic range and expressive weight, fully heroic.

(An abbreviated version of this review, edited for space, ran in print Sept. 23.)