Monday, December 2, 2013


Severance Hall
November 29

A persuasive advocate for the American repertoire.

It’s always a treat to see Marin Alsop. Now in her sixth season as music director and principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop, 57, is one of the world’s foremost proponents of making classical music accessible to wider and younger audiences. Along with regular conducting engagements on three continents, she stays busy creating and promoting music programs for children and discussing great classical works on National Public Radio.

Though she does not present herself as a female conductor – the music comes first – Alsop regularly and quietly sets new benchmarks for women in her field. She is the only conductor ever to receive a MacArthur Award. In September she became the first woman to conduct closing night of the BBC Proms, a serious honor in European music circles. And she hung tough in 2007, when members of the Baltimore Symphony protested her appointment as the first female music director of a major American orchestra. Alsop has been so successful there, her contract was recently extended to run through the 2020-21 season.

Most importantly, she does a first-rate job at the podium. Alsop may not have the depth of some of her contemporaries. But the breadth of her repertoire is impressive, ranging far beyond the core canon. A one-time protégé of Leonard Bernstein, she is an active supporter of contemporary music and the work of American composers.

Thus the opening piece in her Thursday night appearance at Severance: Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 2 (Op. 17). An early work that sparkles with fresh ideas and colors before turning solemn and a bit overwrought, the piece sounded thick and murky, at least by Cleveland Orchestra standards. It was hard to tell if that was Alsop’s approach, or a case of lingering jet lag after the orchestra’s month-long European tour. Either way, it was an unmistakably American work, big and boisterous.

An abrupt 100-year rewind brought Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 54), notable chiefly for the composer’s unprecedented integration of piano and orchestra. Instead of providing background for dazzling solos, the orchestra is an equal partner in the piece, matching and trading phrases, and carrying on an animated dialogue. In that respect it sounded superb, with Alsop skillfully balancing the two elements and then driving them in tandem to a fiery finish.

Clockwork keyboard.
The soloist, David Fray, was less impressive. Though he comes with a great reputation and long list of accomplishments, particularly for 
a 32 year-old, Fray played in a totally straightforward, choppy manner, without a hint of lightness or lyricism. The nimble quality of the orchestra made him sound even flatter. Fray is a facile player with an exceptionally clean style and distinctive sound, but this performance mostly brought to mind a line from a Joni Mitchell song: “The band sounds like typewriters.”

Alsop slipped into instructor mode to start the second half, introducing the audience to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 with a short lecture and musical excerpts played by the orchestra. It was an illuminating few minutes, though in explaining her choice of the piece for Thanksgiving weekend, she seemed intent mostly on assuring audience members they weren’t in for anything scary or new. “You may think you don’t know this piece,” she said. “But you do. It’s part of our culture here in America.”

Indeed it is. The symphony is essentially a long-winded expansion of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which he wrote several years earlier. The piece can become tedious if, as Alsop suggested, you spend most of it waiting for the familiar part to appear (at the end). In her hands, however, it was everything American music should be – fresh, rhythmic, and expansive, redolent of wide vistas and unlimited horizons. The number of players required to bring it to life filled nearly the entire stage, with six percussionists jumping up to add cannon blasts and electric charges in the final movement.

Few conductors provide inspiration along with great music. With Alsop, it’s routine.

For more on Marin Alsop:

For more on David Fray:

Marin Alsop photo by Grant Leighton

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