Monthlong procession of brilliant guests ends with Severance debut of conductor Marin Alsop

12.09.11
Marin Alsop, Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

That gust of fresh air you just felt didn't come off Lake Erie. No, it's the figurative effect of Marin Alsop leading the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall.

A departure from the norm on two significant accounts, Alsop's performance Thursday marked both a rare appearance by a female conductor and an all-too-infrequent exploration of American music. What's more, it was excellent, as Alsop in her Cleveland debut made obvious why she's held in such high regard.

Of all the traits that distinguished Alsop's performance, the strongest was her commitment. Conducting Barber and Bernstein, Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, radiated degrees of enthusiasm and seriousness few display for American music. Where many make only token gestures, she made it her centerpiece.

Start with Barber's Symphony No. 1, premiered in the U.S. by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1937 and last heard here in 2000. Alsop made of the youthful work a brute, dramatic thing, hooking listeners not just on its tight-knit structure but also on its bold, almost violent feeling.

For its part, the orchestra responded well to Alsop, following the conductor closely as she shaped the finale into a gradual mounting of tension and grappling at her side with the Andante's conflicted emotions. Assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun also deserves much credit for delivering the limpid, touching solo that got the Andante off to its affecting start.

Bernstein's "Serenade" is a substantial violin concerto in all but name, based on Plato's "Symposium" and inspired by a conversation between philosophers on the subject of love.

Socrates and Aristophanes are portrayed in the music, but it was first associate concertmaster Peter Otto who made the most persuasive arguments. Exuding quiet confidence, the violinist offered one convincing depiction after another and endowed each scene with vivid personality.

Alsop and the orchestra, too, played a slate of memorable characters, lending explosive energy to one figure's point about sexual compatibility and plunging headlong with Otto into the festive final moments. No less engaging was Otto's lofty Socratic dialogue with first assistant principal cellist Richard Weiss.

But American music doesn't mark the limit of Alsop's talent. On Thursday, she also revealed her powers over core European repertoire, leading an authoritative performance of Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony No. 3 with principal keyboardist Joela Jones in the featured role.

String sound in the first movement grew steadily deeper and more lustrous, setting up an ideal backdrop for Jones. Playing a console situated at the front of the stage on the main floor, the organist evoked the kind of tranquil, heavenly place one wouldn't mind occupying for eternity.

In stark contrast to this, the second movement was driven by Alsop with fierce momentum and strict avoidance of the showy. And yet with Jones, the famous entry of the organ proved as spine-tingling as ever, the conclusion as potent as possible.

It's been a great fall in terms of guest conductors, with Alsop bringing up the rear of a parade of brilliant guests who must return, and soon. As the holiday season begins, here's hoping the streak continues next year.