Cool Restraint Leading the Way to Explosiveness

11.14.10
Marin Alsop
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

With three seasons behind her and a fourth under way, Marin Alsop appears to have settled in comfortably as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the orchestra itself seems to have mellowed. The relationship started unpromisingly when it was announced in 2005, with some players protesting Ms. Alsop’s appointment. But it warmed up as Ms. Alsop, the musicians and the orchestra’s management quickly addressed pressing problems like expanding the audience and trimming a longstanding deficit.

They have made innovative moves. For Ms. Alsop’s inaugural season, 2007-8, the orchestra significantly cut ticket prices to $25. Management has addressed budget problems by paring down the administrative roster, and last year the players offered to forgo about $1 million in wage and pension increases. The ensemble’s home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, has just had a $5 million makeover, and the budget is expected to be balanced this season.

Not incidentally, the orchestra sounds terrific these days, a point Ms. Alsop made quickly at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening. In the opening pages of Barber’s “Second Essay for Orchestra” the woodwinds played with uncommon richness and character, and the string sound was gracefully shaped. If there was anything to quibble about, it was in Ms. Alsop’s interpretation, which at first put the music’s tension and drama at arm’s length. As it turned out, those qualities were merely delayed, not jettisoned: by the time brass and percussion sections made their assertive entrances, Ms. Alsop had gradually brought an urgent edge to her reading.

By the end of the evening it became clear that this approach, patience slowly giving way to explosiveness, was a stylistic thumbprint of Ms. Alsop’s. She handled Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in much the same way, keeping the smooth, polished surfaces and careful balances her players produced fully in the spotlight and letting the implications of Beethoven’s vivid score capture listeners once they were wrapped in the sheer beauty of the sound.

Ms. Alsop’s restraint was occasionally mannered, and you don’t want to hear the “Eroica” that way every time. But it was a fascinating alternative view. The same can be said of the edition Ms. Alsop used, which embodied tweaks by Mahler. The changes — thickened textures, expanded dynamics (whispered pianissimos in the “Eroica”?) and octave doublings, mostly — were neither especially revelatory nor the desecrations one might imagine. Yet with the commemoration of the centenary of Mahler’s death this season, his excesses are being celebrated rather than clucked over.

Between the Barber and the Beethoven, the Macedonia pianist Simon Trpceski joined Ms. Alsop and company for a galvanizing account of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. This work demands both elegance and fire, and Mr. Trpceski and Ms. Alsop agreed fully on how those qualities had to interact. Mr. Trpceski’s playing was finely focused and often dazzlingly speedy, and he tempered the steeliness of Prokofiev’s writing with a welcome suppleness and warmth.