Saturday, September 29, 2007

With a palpable frisson of excitement and anticipation, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its 2007-08 season Thursday evening at Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore. The occasion? The debut of Marin Alsop as the ensemble’s 12th music director, an appointment that promises to take the BSO in a number of new directions.

Miss Alsop opened with an inventive and challenging program — John Adams‘ “Fearful Symmetries” coupled with Gustav Mahler‘s massive, percussive Symphony No. 5. Not only that, but she and the orchestra also used the occasion to announce the availability of their new CD featuring violinist Joshua Bell as soloist in John Corigliano’s “Red Violin Concerto.” If that weren’t enough to pique audience interest, Thursday evening’s performance was the first of a series of concerts this year airing live over XM Satellite Radio Channel 110.

These “firsts” amounted to a welcome musical and public-relations trifecta for a fine orchestra that has not always been accorded its due.

In general, America’s symphony orchestras have struggled during recent decades to build new audiences in a skeptical century that regards them in many ways as museum relics. Classical old-timers tend automatically to boycott concerts when they see something “new” on the program, particularly when the composer is named Schoenberg or Schnittke and the style is largely atonal. Pompous and self-important, these compositions were scorned equally by the young, who preferred rock and its myriad offshoots.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new kind of music began to emerge, returning to Western music’s traditional tonalities while limiting the music’s melodic development, much in the way that classic rock tends to rely on a few basic, continually repeated chords and rhythmic patterns.

Eventually termed “minimalism,” the music attracted a good bit of interest, making minor celebrities out of composers such as Americans Philip Glass and Steve Reich and the Estonian Arvo Part. All have become known as contemporary composers who are not interested in scaring off audiences.

Unfortunately, some minimalist pieces wear out their welcome by their absolute fear of complexity. However, some minimalist pioneers, such as John Adams, have transcended the genre by adding back some of the missing thematic development.

Case in point: Mr. Adams’ “Fearful Symmetries.” Alluding to William Blake’s famous short poem “The Tyger,” Mr. Adams’ piece is up to something else. Its title serves as a pun that describes what’s going on — a sort of large-scale minimalism, propelling techno-dance rhythms and Javanese gamelan riffs relentlessly forward almost without pause, with each section mirroring the next evolution of sound.

Characterized by its shimmering and luminous intensity, “Fearful Symmetries” is a pulsating, polyrhythmic, New Age journey of the mind, a 19th-century tone poem wrapped in a 21st-century package punched up with electronic instrumentation. With its insistent beat, it’s also tougher to play than it looks. Nearly every musician in the orchestra risks repetitive motion syndrome by keeping up this fatiguing activity for nearly 30 minutes. Yet it never seemed to bother the BSO, which dug into the music with obvious relish.

Its enthusiasm was aided and abetted by maestra Alsop’s kinetic conducting style. Together, they didn’t just perform the piece. In the words of the late Frank Zappa, they “put the eyebrows on it.”

Mahler’s 5th Symphony is a journey of another kind, one of the last works of a romantic gigantism that didn’t have much further to go in the early 20th century, preparing in an odd way for the atonal period that was to follow. The work’s five movements chart the voyage of a mental traveler who evolves from the deep pessimism of the first movement’s funeral march through the peaks and valleys of elation and despair to a final, joyous affirmation.

Mahler’s 5th is a real challenge for any conductor and orchestra to keep together in a coherent fashion, let alone interpret. Each movement features special challenges for each section’s first players. Shot through with stormy outbursts and never-ending tempo shifts, the work also requires focus and intensity from every player. Miss Alsop and the BSO exhibited both on Thursday evening in a performance that ranged from largely satisfactory in the first movement to hair-raising excitement in the final Allegro. The symphony’s famous Adagietto was nicely nuanced, providing a welcome contrast between the third and fifth movements’ opposing storms.

Performances of Mahler are rarely if ever perfect. Problems on Thursday evening included a fumble by the tuba and some muddiness in the strings in the first movement and some unduly harsh sounds from the horns in the middle movements. These were relatively minor irritations in a performance that, in the end, signals to both Baltimore and the Washington metropolitan area that something significant is happening in Charm City.


WHAT: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting works of John Adams and Gustav Mahler

WHERE: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore

WHEN: Tonight at 8, tomorrow at 3 p.m.

TICKETS: $37 to $57 plus special offers

PHONE: 410/783-8000, 877/BSO-1444, or MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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