Alsop, BSO prep for Euro tour with bracing Gershwin, Schumann

Fri Jun 01, 2018 at 11:09 am

Marin Alsop conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore. File photo: Jason Dixson

When the Music Center at Strathmore opened in 2005, Washington’s northern suburbs gained a major new resident ensemble. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave thanks for years of playing in its new second venue on Thursday night, by offering a ceremonial baton to Strathmore CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl, who has announced he will step down in August. As Pfanstiehl put it in his brief remarks, the hall at Strathmore “is happiest when the BSO is playing in it.”

Marin Alsop then took up the real working baton to continue the venue tradition. The orchestra was at its most refined and well-rounded in Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird, the 1919 version arranged by the composer with reduced orchestration. The “Dance of the Princesses” offered luscious solos all around the orchestra, served up over sensuously soft string exhalations.

Harrison Miller, the BSO’s young acting principal bassoonist, crooned the dreamy, exotic solo in the “Berceuse,” and Philip Munds gave the opening horn solo of the bracing Finale a heraldic sheen. Alsop aimed for very brisk tempi in the “Introduction and Dance of the Firebird,” with hectic results, but the opening section whispered mysteriously from all sections.

Alsop will lead this program again in August at the Edinburgh International Festival, the first stop on a nine-day European tour. This will be the BSO’s first international tour since 2005, a trip that will also include a rare performance at the Proms in London. Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be the guest pianist on the tour, playing both Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”).

Kirill Gerstein. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Pianist Kirill Gerstein took the solo in the Gershwin concerto and handled the technical challenges of the piece with explosive virtuosity. His booming sound at the keyboard held its own with Alsop’s carefully balanced orchestra so that all of the part’s delicate lines were carefully etched. The second movement was a highlight, not least because of the idiomatic, bluesy trumpet and clarinets.

The third movement’s “orgy of rhythms,” as Gershwin once put it, did not quite line up, with Gerstein rushing ahead of his colleagues. The display of finger prowess was still impressive, a frenetic stab at what Gershwin aimed at, “the young enthusiastic spirit of American life.”

Schumann wrote his Second Symphony with an eye on the musical past; many tributes to J.S. Bach and other composers are woven into its textures, what scholar Douglass Seaton has identified as Schumann’s claim to the inheritance of “German musical nationalism.”

Alsop highlighted some of the old-style counterpoint by reseating the string section for this piece, placing the violin sections on opposite sides of the podium. She spurred the orchestra insistently throughout the first movement, leading up to an exciting, agitated accelerando to finish it off with a zing.

The second movement was equally breathless in character, with all sections of the BSO deserving credit for keeping pace and still defining the music with clarity. In a fun but unexplained bit of theater, both violin sections stood for the climactic conclusion of this scherzo movement, perhaps a tribute to Bach, “supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music” as Nicolas Slonimsky famously defined him, but more likely a bit of summer tour showmanship.

Alsop’s haste only really interfered with the third movement, where the pacing was just too quick for the musicians to luxuriate over the yearning main motif, all pathos-filled, leaving dissonances agonizingly resolved. By contrast, the finale seemed a little tame in tempo, surely a reversal of what Schumann intended. The playing was crisp and clean, important as the composer layered so many of his previous themes over one another ingeniously.

In a parting gesture, the BSO offered a boisterous encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1. 

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 410-783-8000.

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