Sunday, September 28, 2008

Symphony in Orbit

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, September 21, 2008 & Sunday, September 28, 2008 @ Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Baltimore, MD

-The Planets-
Marin Alsop: conductor
Evelyn Glennie: percussion
Women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society
Tom Hall: Music Director
Leo Wanechak: Assistant Conductor

Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung by Richard Wagner
UFO by Michael Daugherty
The Planets by Gustav Holst

-Mahler's Titan-
Marin Alsop: Conductor
Kelly O'Connor: Mezzo-soprano

Symphony No. 1 "Jeremiah" by Leonard Bernstein
Symphony No. 1 "Titan" by Gustav Mahler

The opening two concerts of the 2008-9 season of the Baltimore Symphony proved to be generous to composers named "Gustav." Launching with a subject of celestial bodies; an excerpt from Wagner's Ring Cycle and Daugherty's Project Blue Book inspired UFO as a warm up to The Planets transformed the Meyerhoff into the symphonic equivalent of Area 51. The exquisite orchestration throughout Gustav Holst's famous orchestral work had these ears craving to perform an autopsy on the score. The journey through the Zodiac of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune took on a warm radiance under the baton of Marin Alsop that allowed surprising detail to emerge from this warhorse.

Compared to the incredible orchestration of The Planets, the contemporary percussion concerto - written specifically for Evelyn Glennie - felt transparent. It is a fantastic percussion piece that miraculously avoids the novelty of its "other worldly" sounds of amplified waterphone, mechanical siren and invented instruments. The orchestration felt like an afterthought when juxtaposed against the inventiveness of the solo part. The large assemblage of instruments went largely underused for much of this composition as it was mostly limited to coloration and accompaniment. I had hoped for an "abduction" movement where the symphonic players might overwhelm the soloist for a spell.

The following week presented a program of First Symphonies by composers focused upon the spiritual realm. Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 tells the story of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah through orchestral and voice. The weighty subject felt surprisingly light given the wealth of lyrical themes and the brevity of the work as a whole. A pleasant, well orchestrated and well performed work that effervescently dissolved into the early afternoon.

As an undergraduate student I once spent a Sunday determined to develop an understanding of the music of Gustav Mahler. Armed with a score for the Symphony No. 1 I followed along with a recording completely unprepared for the magnitude of this sprawling masterpiece. The spiritual struggle that drives this - and much of Mahler's other works - was lost on me at the time as a young student struggling to digest the language of late-Romanticism. But what did impress me was the arrangement and the way Mahler weaves his thematic layers throughout this music.

Hearing this piece in the concert hall makes the gravity and staying power of the "Titan" much clearer. With ears more open to the nineteenth century the thematic layers were even more impressive - and hauntingly familiar - this time through. There were some intonation problems in the brass section toward the end of an otherwise brilliant reading. This was a performance to melt ears once hostile to the sound wold of Gustav Mahler.

No comments: