Alsop, Baltimore Symphony shine in O.C.

Marin Alsop, Colin Currie
Orange County Register

By Timothy Mangan

Review: A female-centric program is highlighted by Higdon’s Percussion Concerto.

The Baltimore Symphony, which gave the only Southern California performance of its mini West Coast tour Wednesday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall, has declared its 2011-2012 season a celebration of revolutionary women. To commemorate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, the orchestra is offering performances of Honegger's oratorio "Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher" and Richard Einhorn's score for the silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" during the season, among other female-centric works.

Of course, to celebrate revolutionary women, or at least significant ones, the Baltimoreans merely need to step on stage with their conductor, Marin Alsop, who is now in her fifth season as the group's music director and who is the first woman to head a major orchestra in this country. Wednesday's agenda, with Alsop on the podium, added two works by female composers to make up a genuine ladies night at the symphony.

Jennifer Higdon's Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto took the center spot in the program. It certainly is an entertaining show, especially with percussionist Colin Currie as soloist, running around stage to his various set ups and pounding the living daylights out of them. To my ears at least, Higdon has managed to avoid one of the pitfalls of percussion concertos – that most percussion instruments are basically inexpressive of human emotion; try saying "my heart aches" with a snare drum – by making her work a virtuoso showpiece, fun to watch and blistering to the ear.

Not that there aren't quiet and moody bits in the piece. Higdon begins with soft, harmonized tremolos on the solo marimba that sound almost tender, and returns to the general area now and then. But the allegros were something else, snazzy, frenetic and wild, with Currie rattling away on pitched and non-pitched percussion rapidly and compellingly. His forays to the drum set rocked. His work on a wood-block, cymbal and castanet array had a mechanistic feel, especially with its interplay with the orchestra. And his solos with the three other percussionists in the orchestra made nothing less than a glorious noise.

The orchestra part is accessible, muscular and busy for the most part, with a big brass theme and Americana-like section. Alsop led it enthusiastically.

Her moment, and the orchestra's, to shine, though, came after intermission, with a performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. We've heard this work a few times in recent seasons here, including with some world class ensembles. If this performance didn't quite reach the sheer luxury and virtuosic brilliance of those others, it had plenty going for it.

The Baltimore Symphony sounded bright and gritty. The violins, well unified, laid into their parts with vehemence. The lead trumpet player allowed no one in his way. The brass section, in general, could be unkind to the strings, but the group overall has an attractively open sound, the woodwinds a nice pungency. You could hear things in the score that more blended ensembles smooth over.

And Alsop dug into the work unrelentingly. Her phrasing never became heavy or overbearing, though, thanks to her animated rhythms, purposeful accents and forward momentum. It was a fiery and thrilling performance.

With a rhetorical wink, Alsop opened the concert with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and followed it immediately with Joan Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman," a similarly instrumented work to the Copland (with more percussion) and similar in style, though jagged and ornamental (female?) where Copland is plain and spacious (male?). Alsop conducted both effectively, in straightforward fashion.

The encore (after the Prokofiev) was the last little bit of Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances," such a last little bit, in fact, that the piece is for all intents and purposes over. A little odd, but tasty enough.