Thursday, October 04, 2007

Of Alsop, Adams and Mahler

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, conductor
Sunday, September 30, 2007 @ The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD

John Adams: Fearful Symmetries
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Separated by nearly a century and composing within two completely different eras there is a surprising balance of contrasts and similarities between John Adams and Gustav Mahler. And as an opening salvo for Marin Alsop's first program of the season as the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, this concert held the promise a bright future filled with spirited interpretations of exciting new works mixed in with several war horses.

Alsop proved to be light on her feet through the churning minimalist textures of Fearful Symmetries. Awash with resonant consonance, simple arranging and transparent sequential logic, Fearful Symmetries had the feel of a MIDI sequencer file arranged for orchestra and synthesizer. Composed in 1988, the percussive synthesizer timbres that start off this work felt dated and were well balanced even if somewhat removed from the overall orchestral soundscape. It is a light work that splashes pleasantly against the ears.

Under Alsop's baton, Mahler's Symphony No. 5 takes on a level of clarity and lightness I don't normally associate with the dark plodding of quality of Mahler's orchestral writing. The detailed, long winded unfolding of this music was a welcome contrast of weight and density that was exquisitely rendered. The sequence from the funeral march of the first movement toward the lighter expressions of joy in the final movements passed over the Meyerhoff like a sunrise, leaving a sense of optimism in its wake.

The combination of Adams and Mahler is an interesting one. Several bloggers and music aficionados I respect have expressed enormous enthusiasm for both composers that seems way out of proportion to anything I've heard so far.

I haven't yet heard Adams' more recent works, but I have attended several performances of his early pieces and they've stuck me as paradoxical in his willingness to sacrifice concept in favor of orchestration. The bouncing octaves in the bass section of Fearful Symmetries being a perfect example in their non-ironic (and unintentional) allusion to a disco cliche. The former serialist composer within me wants to critique the lack of harmonic content (knowing that I'm applying an unfair standard in this case). And the jazz arranger within me questions the banality of such a line. Either way, there's plenty of Adams scheduled over this season and I'll keep listening until I figure out what the fuss is about.

With Mahler it has taken time to penetrate the excesses of his late Romantic style. And lately I've started to warm up to the dense, expressive chromaticism of his music. Continued exposure to performances like this one could make a Mahler fan out of me yet. Like Adams, I will continue to seek this music out with open ears.

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