Under music director Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra swung for the fences on Saturday night at Strathmore, playing three intense, complex, sonically rich works so forcefully that hearing the first two left me too drained to properly appreciate the third. The fact that the first of these — “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” —received its world premiere in the BSO’s concerts that weekend only heightened the sense of occasion.
As part of this BSO season’s focus on revolutionary women, Alsop approached James Lee III, a noted composer and a professor at Morgan State, with a request for a composition celebrating the life of Harriet Tubman. Lee was present Saturday to join Alsop onstage in giving a little introduction to his work, the BSO supplying musical excerpts to illustrate his discussion. This is exactly what orchestras should be doing if they have discussions before playing new music: Give the audience some markers they can use to orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. Don’t just stand up there talkin’!
In the event, though, “Chuphshah!” didn’t need much explicating. An opening brass outburst followed by a churning, breathless marimba solo conveyed Lee’s vision of a slave breaking his or her bonds and running off, as fast as possible, to an uncertain destination. The slower passages that followed featured the English horn, representing Tubman herself, ruminating on a wistful melody over a bed of absurdly rich string accompaniment. This accompaniment had no tonal center, but sounded purposefully ambiguous rather than murky or dissonant; it seemed to create webs of conflicting feelings around the English horn’s thoughts, an effect magnified by Lee’s quotation and reharmonization of songs like “Go Down Moses” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This was the point in the composition at which I noted that the BSO should check Strathmore’s HVAC system, because I had something in my eye.
“Chuphshah!” did become sharply dissonant in another episode, depicting one specific liberation in which Tubman participated. After some more heartbreaking lyrical passages, the piece ended with bitterly dissonant trumpet fanfares depicting Tubman’s military funeral but seeming to ask whether any celebration of her life can mitigate the evil of the circumstances that called forth her heroism. I would like to hear this piece again immediately, preferably from the BSO with Alsop conducting; this performance felt totally committed and featured eloquent playing from every desk.
And there were two standard-rep works yet to come! Alsop obviously loves Dvorák, or she wouldn’t program and record so much of his music, so hearing her conduct his cello concerto was a draw in and of itself. Soloist Alisa Weilerstein, meanwhile, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last week, meaning she’s smarter than you or I (unless you won one too). Sad to say that these two passionate performers did not start out with their approaches totally in sync. During their introduction, Alsop and the orchetra enjoyed every little detail of Dvorák’s colorful orchestration, like they were on a leisurely stroll along a babbling brook in a Bohemian grove. When Weilerstein entered, however, she attacked her opening like a romantic hero struggling against some oppressive force. Though I am loath to question certified genius, my conception of Dvorák lines up more with Alsop’s than Weilerstein’s. However, both conductor and soloist seemed to sense something needing fixing, and by the middle of the first movement they had found a productive middle ground.
From there, Weilerstein’s absurdly good cello playing carried the day. She plays gracefully, yet with a hypnotically clean and focused tone; you get the impression that nothing holds any technical challenges for her, so she can concentrate on higher musical things. As commandingly as she can bark out an aggressive phrase, her quiet playing lingers longest in the memory. She gave a hypnotic rendition of the first movement’s principal theme in the development section, intertwining her tone gorgeously with the solo flute. When she settled into a remarkably warm and even-toned whisper of a trill at the close of the second movement and the orchestra cast a brief minor-chord shadow over the proceedings, I actually felt a chill. The finale was just plain fun, with Weilerstein seeming a little looser, enjoying the jauntiness of the main theme and dialing up another magical trill towards the end.
After those two fired-up performances, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony may not have been the best possible post-intermission closer. I wondered whether a Classical-era symphony would have fit better there: something with heft that still demands less emotional engagement from the audience, like a late Haydn symphony. Anyway, Alsop and the BSO certainly seemed to be playing well, but I was completely emotionally disengaged — a victim of the BSO’s first-half success. Wish I could give a more informative review, but it’s better to be honest than to make something up…right?
MARIN ALSOP IS THE QUEEN OF THE POST-CONCERT Q&A
Most post-concert Q&As are kind of terrible, with people asking irrelevant questions or attempting to show off their massive erudition for all present, but I always stay for Alsop’s. Why is she so consistently entertaining?
- She’s funny. First and foremost. She never passes up an opportunity for a chuckle, and it makes the audience feel at ease.
- She knows how to take a bad question and turn it into something worth answering: by repeating the question and talking until she lands on a better topic.
- She knows how to draw whatever guests she has onstage (James Lee, in this case) into the discussion without being obvious or ostentatious about it.
- She seems to actually enjoy it.
Four simple ingredients, but they go a long way.