- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The buzz was high, and seats were scarce Monday in the concert hall at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. Not only were all tickets priced at a rock-bottom $25, but the featured draw was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — under the baton of soon-to-be music director Marin Alsop.

Billed as the maestra’s first and only Washington-area engagement before she takes the reins next January, the program gave local concertgoers a tantalizing hint of things to come.

The orchestra opened with a workmanlike performance of Johannes Brahms’ enigmatic “Tragic Overture,” Op. 81. The playing was clean and precise but seemed to be lacking in passion, perhaps the result of overfamiliarity with this frequently performed material.

However, the Brahms warmed up the orchestra for the rest of the program, which was an order of magnitude more impressive while still focusing on the tragic.

Next on the program — and carefully placed before the intermission — was the first Strathmore performance of American composer and Baltimore native Christopher Rouse’s difficult Symphony No. 1. The work was commissioned by the BSO and introduced by the ensemble in 1988.

Maestra Alsop — a champion of American and contemporary music — was fully immersed in the composer’s rather gloomy outlook, which seemed to follow naturally from the Brahms. Divided internally into something approximating a symphony’s usual four movements, Mr. Rouse’s work is written as an extended adagio played virtually without pause.

To borrow a TV sports metaphor, what we customarily get in an extended symphonic work is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Mr. Rouse’s symphony, however, skips the victory and wallows in the misery of a life whose bright dreams and hopes lie dimmed or shattered. It is a symphony of pain that sometimes is literally painful, punctuated with crashingly barbaric, tone-cluster yawps snarled by percussion and brass. Mr. Rouse’s work is not exactly uplifting. Then again, we all have had days like this.

Surprisingly, this oddly post-postmodernist symphony has much to recommend it, as it incorporates baroque structural elements and an elegiac tonal conclusion into its sometimes 12-tone mix, creating a psychologically well-rounded musical portrait for our troubled times. The BSO brilliantly negotiated its multilayered complexities for Ms. Alsop, breathing as one whether the music was detonating in despair or sinking resignedly into quiet desperation.

She then led the BSO in a richly satisfying, luminous performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, judged by many to be the composer’s greatest, although American fans of his 9th Symphony (“From the New World”) probably would disagree.

The 7th, however, is thematically unified and skillfully constructed, a pinnacle of achievement for this most congenial of composers. It pays homage to Brahms — particularly in its choral brass allusions to the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony — but also strikes out for new territory with its surprising little passages anticipating the “extended tonality” of Zemlinsky and Korngold in the early 20th century and its quirkily offbeat scherzo-based Czech dance rhythms.

At the concert’s close, Ms. Alsop, flanked by associate conductor Andrew Constantine and concertmaster Jonathan Carney, reappeared for a well-attended audience Q&A.; Unpretentious, straightforward, idiosyncratic and naturally funny, she answered a number of questions, revealing at one point her still-embryonic but developing plans to put the BSO back on the recording map.

She already has inked a pact with the Naxos label to record a BSO Dvorak cycle. She’s also looking into leading-edge recording techniques such as cutting live-performance CDs for sale right after concerts and possibly initiating podcasts to attract the next generation of classical music lovers.

***1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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