Alsop, BSO have uneven night with Orff and Stravinsky

Fri Sep 30, 2016 at 3:22 pm
Lori Laitman's "Unsung" was given its world premiere by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Strathmore.

Lori Laitman’s “Unsung” was given its world premiere by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Strathmore.

Last week the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its season at Strathmore, its second home in North Bethesda. At that performance Marin Alsop introduced the audience to ten new musicians who have joined her ensemble’s ranks, including principal clarinetist Yao Guang Zhai. Problems of rhythmic cohesion among the musicians, heard at that concert last Saturday, continued but were less prominent in this week’s concert, heard Thursday evening at Strathmore.

Alsop smartly paired a dutiful performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with a world premiere and a rarely heard 20th-century masterpiece. The BSO has commissioned ten short works, six of them composed by women, to mark the 100th anniversary of its first public concert in 1916. The quality of these new pieces has varied considerably: a new Fanfare for the Common Woman by Joan Tower proved a disappointment, while the Poe-inspired Processional by Christopher Rouse was quite the opposite.

Unsung, by Washington composer Lori Laitman, is the latest of these compact, five-minute amuse-bouches to receive its world premiere. The orchestra solicited audience suggestions for these commissions, and Laitman was inspired by one that asked to hear from some of those “wonderful musicians” in the BSO “whose brilliance is often submerged in tutti passages.”

The piece launched from a low note into a fleeting, wistful scene from a sentimental film score. Little solos burst forth here and there, from the orchestra’s often unappreciated instruments, but then failed to blossom. The harmony was saccharine, not unpleasant in any way but of the kind faded from memory almost immediately.

Stravinsky composed his Symphony in Three Movements for the New York Philharmonic. When he conducted the premiere, in 1946, it was the first of his works presented after he had become a naturalized American citizen. After a promising opening to the first movement, infused with motoric quotations from The Rite of Spring, some uneasiness with this rarely performed score crept into Alsop’s rendition. The piece shifts meters and moods constantly, and the sections did not always join together comfortably.

Alsop emphasized a jazzy pertness more than the disturbing images of war that inspired Stravinsky, echoed brutally in the composer’s recording with the New York Philharmonic. The harp solos were pretty but somewhat obscured by the orchestra in the second movement, music Stravinsky conceived for Henry King’s film The Song of Bernadette, about the visionary of Lourdes (though unused). This was a more vexing problem in the third movement, where the two concertante instruments, piano and harp, have lead roles in the concluding fugue.

Many people are willing to write off Wagner as a Nazi merely because Adolf Hitler admired his music. Carl Orff, on the other hand, benefited from a direct association with the Nazis, but his bizarre, salacious choral work Carmina Burana, premiered in 1937 in Germany, retains an apparently boundless popularity. Alsop led a slightly tentative performance of few surprises, but the loud, pulsing quality of the work never fails to delight audiences.

The piece rests on its parts for chorus, performed here by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. The results were not quite up to that organization’s high standards, with some shakiness at the start of sections. The men of the chorus tended to rush ahead of Alsop’s beat, and intonation, especially among the women, suffered. This season will be the last for the redoubtable Tom Hall, who has directed the group for 35 years. (Leo Wanenchak is credited with preparing the chorus for this performance.)

The Peabody Children’s Chorus had one might call a virginal sound, except that word has unseemly associations in the smutty Latin texts set by Orff. Somewhat incongruously, the choruses sang the Germanic pronunciation of the Latin texts, while the soloists used the Italianate one.

Of the soloists, tenor Matthew Plenk stood out for his wailing roasted swan in “Cignus ustus cantat,” all in full voice up to a near-crack on the highest note. Soprano Anna Christy had a playful sound, animated by a rather active vibrato. Her intonation was not always on target, but at the orgasmic solo “Dulcissime,” she displayed a beautiful, easy tone. The lion’s share of the solo work falls to the baritone, and Elliot Madore offered some suave moments. The sound turned a little gooey and the highest notes caused some strain.

The only real surprise of the performance was the trouble in the BSO’s horn section, with a high note splattered time after time in “Chramer, gip die varwe mir.” Principal horn player Philip Munds was not in his usual nochair.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

One Response to “Alsop, BSO have uneven night with Orff and Stravinsky”

  1. Posted Oct 08, 2016 at 7:34 pm by Sixtus Beckmesser

    I share your distaste for Orff in general and for Carmina Burana in particular: nasty, atavistic stuff. Even if not a Nazi himself, surely he was an enabler.

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