Three nations, two conductors, one lively, eloquent program

The Baltimore Sun

It's easy to make too much of a composer's nationality, especially since music is, as you may have heard, the universal language.

But the current Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program reiterates some interesting points about the subject nonetheless. Three composers and three countries are represented, and you couldn't possibly mistake which is which.

Although lots of Americans used to consider Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 practically one of our own works, so plentiful were the African and Native American tunes supposedly in it, the thing is Czech through and through. Likewise, while Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto springs from the same basic well of late-19th-century romanticism that served many a European composer, the ear quickly catches a rich taste of the British Isles in it.

Jennifer Higdon, one of today's most successful composers, proclaims her Americanism with the first whack from the percussion battery in her succinct, kinetic Fanfare Ritmico.

Two people shared the podium Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, but the whole concert bore the stamp of Marin Alsop, the BSO's music director-designate.

Rei Hotoda, the 2006 recipient of the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, a program founded by Alsop to nurture women entering a still-male-centric profession, took charge of Higdon's 1999 curtain-raiser. She drew from the ensemble a tight, lively performance that underlined the score's sinewy structure, lively harmonic activity and ever-engaging instrumental coloring.

Elgar's haunting and haunted concerto, composed in the aftermath of World War I, is music with a slightly trembling upper lip, music that wants to mourn, but wants to move stoically on, too. The composer achieves something profound here, and that depth emerged tellingly on Thursday.

Alsop revealed considerable affinity for the Elgar sound-world and had a soul-mate in the notable cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whose tone throbbed with emotion. The potent directness and intensity of involvement in the soloist's approach assured that no phrase emerged without import.

In a few places, Alsop could have added to the poignancy by stretching out the tempo, but this was nonetheless eloquent conducting, and it inspired remarkably sensitive work from the orchestra. The tricky final measures, though, needed better alignment and definition.

The bittersweet quality in Elgar's concerto has a certain counterpart in Dvorak's Ninth, with its tinge of nostalgia for the old country, and Alsop was attentive to that cloudier side, even while stressing momentum. She didn't over-emphasize the somber start of the symphony or dawdle over the famous Largo, but still brought out the richness of the lyricism as she propelled the performance forward. (I don't think it would have hurt to give the closing fadeout - one of Dvorak's most inspired, and revealing, touches - just a little more time.)

The conductor, whose rapport with the BSO seems to grow with each appearance, enjoyed a dynamic, involved response from each section in the ensemble and the soloists within (notably Jane Marvine on English horn).

Some entrances weren't exactly seamless, but the overall cohesiveness of the orchestra's playing bodes well for the recording of the Ninth being made live during this weekend's performances at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for release on Naxos - the beginning of an Alsop/BSO/Dvorak cycle for that label.

By the way, I know we can't stop marketing departments from coming up with cutesy titles to sell classical programs, a practice that gets more rampant every year. But surely someone could have done better than to put this one under the heading of "Wonder Women." It isn't just silly, but demeaning - not so much to women, perhaps, as to the music, which should have been a sellable attraction on its own.

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