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In performance: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Web-only review:

Alsop does 3 Bs with BSO

The "three B's" are a classical music cornerstone, but it was a gnostic trinity that Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented at Strathmore on Saturday night. Usually, the "three B's" denote Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but the BSO substituted Barber and Bartók, with Beethoven as the constant on the list.

It's high time for this kind of shift. Barber and Bartók both wrote in the 20th century -- indeed, both the original version of the "Adagio for Strings" and "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" were written in the same year, 1936, Alsop pointed out in remarks during the concert. This makes them positively newfangled in the classical music world. Yet both of the works are repertory touchstones, even masterpieces. They certainly got beautiful performances on Saturday.

Then came Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto - another masterpiece, written more than 100 years earlier -- with André Watts as soloist: a performance representing classical music's bluest blood. It was perfectly unobjectionable, but against the other two pieces, it sounded a little old-fashioned. It's a good idea, in short, to welcome some newer gods into the pantheon.
(read more after the jump)

The gorgeous "Adagio for Strings," originally the second movement of Barber's Op. 11
string quartet, is so ubiquitous as a shorthand for mourning, brought out for state funerals and film soundtracks, that it risks becoming a cliche. In fact, its tensions could have as much to do with the exquisite intensity of love -- Barber didn't intend it as a threnody -- but Alsop and the orchestra did nothing to go against the prevailing view; it got a gentle, modulated performance from the orchestra's rich strings.

It also represented a signal contrast to Bartók's bracing, clear and soberly named "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." The Barber is a brief cry of pure emotion; the Bartók is virtuosically intricate, blending folk themes and sophisticated compositional technique.
Each of the four movements presents a different emphasis on the combinations of instruments: The first is a brilliant muted fugue with strings and celesta, which Alsop held to a marvelously simmering restraint until the piano impatiently burst in, in the second movement, to show how things could sound if they got a little louder. The third movement is a brilliant evanescence of percussion overhanging string chords that soar wordlessly at the edge of vocalism, like a theremin; and the fourth movement casts intellectual brilliance aside and wraps things up, in time-honored style (think Brahms) with a rousing Hungarian dance.

Alsop lavished a lot of attention on the details of this piece, and it was the highlight of the evening. In the Beethoven, the same kind of attention starts to seem fussy -- a reason I have often liked the conductor's work more in pieces of more recent vintage. The "Emperor" is familiar ground for everybody; Watts has played it countless times in the
course of a decades-long career (it's his 45th year of appearances with the BSO). There were moments when his fluidity almost led into perilous waters, rocking the rhythms to excess in the first movement and risking a cavalier quality in the edited to add: third fourth, but there were also striking passages of attention to detail and quality of sound that added a definite flair
to a robust performance. This concerto, and Watts, were what the capacity crowd came to hear, and they ate it up.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 7, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Watts' playing in the fourth movement "risked a cavalier quality?" I imagine it did. The last time I checked, the "Emperor" concerto has only three movements.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | June 7, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

There are moments when gremlins take over one's fingers. I remember once reading in the New York Times about a tenor in Tosca singing a high C in "Vittoria! Vittoria!" and exclaiming, indignantly, "I never wrote that!" But, of course, and inexplicably, l had. Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 8, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

"Pay no attention to what critics say; no statue has ever been put up for a critic."
Jean Sibelius

First I'm disappointed that the Post editor
believed the concert wasn't worth printing in the paper.Is it any wonder that circulation is falling like a stone?

As for Ms. Midgette I AM CONVINCED SHE IS NO MUSIC LOVER!. She seems more interested in showing what we will perceive as erudition. Thank heaven that I am not paid to criticize, and I attend to enjoy. She said Watt's mastery of the "Emperor" as "unobjectionable" I've heard it played by Curzon, Serkin, Arau, Gilels, Michaelangli, Barenboim and many others and this may have been the greatest of them all. Perhaps she left early to beat the traffic and missed the audience standing en masse and cheering.

So what if the Barber is almost a cliche.The BSO rendition of the Bartok under Alsop was as great as Bernstein
with the NYP.

I wish I complained much earlier about Ms. Midgette's shoddy work after previous outrageous comments.I believe readers and performers deserve more than this sort of drivel.Perhaps her talents are more suited to obits.

I close with a Yiddish proverb: "A fault-finder complains even the bride is too pretty."

Posted by: mycroft4 | June 8, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

mycroft4: I'd hate to see how you would respond to a review of a concert I didn't like. I quite liked this one.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 9, 2010 12:14 AM | Report abuse

There is too a statue of a critic. There are several such statues, in fact:

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 10, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

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