All Talk, All Action: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, January 21, 2011

For the second of its “Off the Cuff” programs this season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its music director, Marin Alsop, talking about and leading the orchestra in illustrative examples from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony for twenty-five minutes before an attentive Friday-night audience at the Music Center at Strathmore, followed immediately by a full performance of the work. This programming idea worked well. Shostakovich’s Fifth creates a musical world that does not need to be augmented with an overture and concerto in order to feel like a full evening’s worth of music, and there’s certainly plenty to say about the symphony, especially when you’ve got the personable Alsop doing the talking.

A few quibbles to get out of the way: Her discussion came a little top-heavy with biographical details and history that would have been familiar to anyone who read the note in the program for Friday’s concert. Presumably the “Off the Cuff” series is designed to educate people who know less than carping-prone music critics, but it would have made the talk more special if Alsop had dropped some semi-novel knowledge on us, other than the good-to-know fact that Shostakovich’s first composition, at age 11, was titled “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” (Also, the microphone into which Alsop spoke should have been placed below her face, not in front of it, and Alsop could have cut back on the “um”s a bit during this exposition-y section.)

Alsop’s discussion of the work itself, however, and her selection of choice moments for the orchestra to play foreshadowed the reading that was to come: muscular but essentially lyrical, sensitive to color, rhythmically vigorous. For example, Alsop named a different bit of the opening of the first movement as its melodic seed than did the program notes, selecting not the severe opening canon but a melodic fragment coming after it. Showing a personal enthusiasm, Alsop led the BSO in the opening of the Scherzo from Mahler’s First Symphony and then the opening of the Scherzo from the Fifth, which she called “Mahler with more attitude”; it was easy to see the likeness.

In other places, the excerpts Alsop chose proved a pretty accurate guide to where she and the BSO would find climaxes in the actual performance: an impassioned melodic outburst in unison strings in the first movement, another anguished passage for strings in the Largo slow movement with punctuating chords from the double basses that Alsop likened to stabs, a descent from rah-rah marches into bleakness in the finale. Hearing those moments isolated before the performance itself likely helped newcomers to the work locate themselves as Shostakovich’s vast canvas spread itself out before them. On my part, I noticed that Alsop’s extract of the first-movement unison strings passage omitted the cacophonous two-chord outbursts that immediately follows, and the omission showed where Alsop wanted to take the symphony.

Not that the cacophony, when it eventually came, lacked impact. Just before turning from the mic to drop the downbeat, Alsop gave one last word of praise for the BSO’s playing, and every desk of the orchestra put every ounce of effort and emotion into this performance. During the performance, my thoughts occasionally turned to just how much the BSO now seems to like playing under Alsop; they shape melodies in her style with no apparent effort, they follow her pacing closely, they balance the sections so well that you only realize how good the balance was after the performance. In the live acoustic of the Music Center, every string-driven lament sang out clearly, every brassy march seethed with menace, the celesta twinkled with magnetically quiet notes, every flute solo floated tangible and poignant into the hall. (There seemed to be a lot of memorable flute solos in this performance.)

In her introductory remarks, Alsop referred to the Fifth’s finale as a “march of suffocation,” in keeping with the belief that Shostakovich’s Fifth secretly ridicules the desires of the Soviet authorities for lotsa patriotic rousing stuff. Being a contrarian, I have always pointed out in such discussions that the finale of the Fifth is, in fact, rousing, and if you don’t respond at some purely physical level to its dynamic energy you pretty much don’t have a pulse. Still, hearing Alsop explain and illustrate her view made it come over even more forcefully in this performance, and though my pulse quickened with pure excitement, the sheer wall of sound from the massed brass clenching its martial fist stopped me short as well. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening that showed just how illuminating musicians like Alsop can be when they let the audience get a peek at their craft.

HOLDING MY ATTENTION

I am becoming increasingly convinced that a lot of concerts would be better if they just featured about an hour of music and concentrated on playing it really, really intensely, which (whatever the intention) was what happened on Friday. You don’t have to spend intermission deciding whether to get a drink or some Junior Mints and forgetting whatever happened beforehand and immersing yourself in another emotional world. You have a memorable experience and then get to wander around committing it to memory. Of course, immediately after this concert I went to the Mansion at Strathmore for Friday Night Eclectic (X.O., baby!), so I may not be the one to talk.

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